The Chevrolet Corvette is something that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of America in the 1960s. Other standout moments from 1960s America, of course, are the NASA Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions and the first moon landing in 1969. While most are familiar with these two American heritages, some may not know about their fascinating cross. . If you look back at the astronauts of the 60s and early 70s, you’ll find the majority of them rode Corvettes. It’s not a coincidence!
Early astronauts are test pilots, so thrilling sports cars are perfect for them
According to Chevrolet, the first American in space, Alan Shepard, was ahead of the Corvette curve. Long before the rental program, Shepard appeared in a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette when he first went to Cape Canaveral for space flight training in 1959. Shepard would go on to own nearly a dozen Corvettes throughout his life.
It makes sense that these wild aviators preparing to explore the frontiers of the vacuum would want a fast, fun car. Shepard, of course, is proof of that. So when this thought clicked with Indy 500 winner and Florida Chevrolet dealership owner Jim Rathmann, he struck a special deal with GM. Rathmann and Chevrolet reached an agreement in 1961 that allowed every NASA astronaut to rent a new Corvette for $1.
Six of the seven Mercury program astronauts accepted Rathmann’s offer, while John Glenn chose the station wagon. Shepard, already a huge Corvette fan, opted to acquire a large block Corvette through a rental program. So is fellow astronaut and American legend Gus Grissom. Prior to Grissom’s untimely death in a fire aboard the Apollo I capsule, Shepard would race him on the tarmac runway of The Cape. This eventually led to a consistent battle between the two to see who could be the fastest. Grissom even modified his last Corvette to receive wider racing tires and special gearing in 1967.
The birth of this rental program not only put the Corvette in the hands of astronauts for years to come, it also boosted sales of the Corvette and helped build its reputation as an American sports car.
“In the 1960s, astronauts were American heroes every child idolized and every adult respected,” says Corvette historian and former Corvette Quarterly editor Jerry Burton.
Astronauts continued to rent Corvettes, though they eventually returned them to Chevy
Before long, Corvettes became as important a part of the astronauts’ lifestyle as the vehicles that took them into space.
Apollo 12 astronauts Dick Gordon, Charles Conrad, and Alan Bean ordered a 1969 Corvette Stingrays equipped with 427 big-block V8s. Additionally, they have a black-accented Riverside Gold paint scheme designed by Bean himself. Chevrolet also added a special red, white, and blue badge on their respective fenders. The Corvette Bean is occasionally on display and even appears in Jay Leno’s Garage.
Apollo 15 astronauts Jim Irwin, Al Worden, and Dave Scott also ordered a Corvette of the same specs in 1971. However, instead of matching colors, they ordered one red, one white, and one blue. No need to explain that one. You might get it.
Unfortunately, at the end of their one-dollar-a-year lease, the astronauts returned their Corvette to the Chevrolet. Chevrolet then sold it to the general public. Some Corvette fans have come across the VIN of “Astrovettes” before.
Some still exist, such as the aforementioned Alan Bean’s 1969 Stingray. Another example is Alan Shepard’s 1968 Corvette 427 convertible, which sold at Barrett-Jackson’s 2022 Scottsdale auction for $308,000. That means a lease of 308,000 years!
When you find yourself a bunch of guys who are crazy enough to risk their lives in the name of science, it’s safe to assume that they’re going to want a high-performance car to spend their time on the ground. So this charter program allows these astronauts to balance work and play in the form of giving them a break from the space race. Instead, they’ll do a bit of regular racing for fun!
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